Today we experienced [failure]. And yes, there were lessons learned.
Lesson one: avoid multiple mission objectives.
That’s not always easy, when you find yourself in a spectacular part of the world, with an ace photographer and the kind of weather conditions that come about less than once in a blue moon.
Today we found ourselves at Cape Horn, infamous site of shipwrecks that claimed so many brave sailors as they tried to round South America’s tip. There is a church at the top of the promontory where today sailors can still petition their protectors to send favourable conditions.
And today they did.
The wind was light, the swell was gentle, the air and water temperature both a comfortable 7°C. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions in which to swim around Cape Horn.
The plan was to complete a one kilometre swim around the famous landmark, and take photographs at the same time. Two mission objectives that should have both been achievable.
The conditions may have been about as benign as you get at Cape Horn, but that didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet here, so the sea churns with competing currents. That makes it hard for me to see where I’m going.
It also creates an upwelling of nutrients, which makes the sea life incredibly rich. This is a wonderful thing. When you’re in the water it’s literally bubbling with life.
We could also hear some large sea lions barking from the rocks. I had a close call some years ago with a sea lion in Campbell Island, and I’m not keen to repeat the experience. So photographer Kelvin Trautman, who was in the water with me, kept an eye out for hungry seals – joking that at least he had a drysuit on, and a camera to ward them off with if needs be!
As always, he got the great shots.
I swam back to the support boat, and returned to the ship to warm up. It was only after I was back on board and in dry clothes that I was told we had only done an 850m swim. In all the excitement, we’d measured the distance wrong.
I could have shrugged it off and left it at that. The last thing I wanted was to get back into that water. But it’s a matter of integrity. The chance to do a long-distance swim around Cape Horn is a rare privilege, and 850 metres would certainly not qualify.
There was only one thing for it. I had to go out and do the swim again.
We finished the second swim, and regrouped.
Here’s our take-out from today: The bigger the danger, the simpler the operations need to be, and the fewer the mission objectives.
As we head further south, the layers of risk add up. If there had to be a do-over, I’m grateful that it was here at Cape Horn, and in such rare favourable conditions.
And I suppose that when I am an old man it will be fun to say that I once swum around Cape Horn twice – in one day.
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